VEGETARIANS GET THE GREEN SIGNAL
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
Once upon a time long, long ago, in a land far, far away – okay, 20 or so years ago and in Vancouver – a family walked into a restaurant.
Faced with a meat-heavy menu, they hesitantly informed the waiter that they were vegetarians.
“Oh, and you walked into a steak-house,” he said with an incredulous laugh.
The story has a happy ending. He rustled together a meal with a bread basket, a bowl of salad and a big helping of fries.
When it came time to pay, he announced that he didn’t know what to charge them as they hadn’t had an actual meal!
“We were brand new in Canada and had walked in blindly, just to get out of the cold,” says a member of that family. “But really, what were our choices at any of the fast food places? Fries, fries and more fries?”
It’s a changed landscape today, with most of those fast food places offering salads, wraps and other vegetarian options. With celebrity cookbook authors and chefs making it fashionable, being vegetarian or vegan is much easier. There are variations on the theme such as flexitarian and ketotarian – which recipe books claim can burn fat, boost your energy, crush your cravings and calm inflammation – that leave even some vegetarians confused!
There are tons of strictly vegetarian Indian restaurants and places like Planta do a great veggie hot dog with carrots.
None other than Dr Deepak Chopra weighs in on the benefits of a vegetarian diet. In the chapter titled Reality Check: You Eat What Your Food Eats in Radical Beauty, he writes: Another ugly ingredient in animal products is... well, other animals... Cows were not meant to eat other cows. Period.
Vegetarians have long talked about the benefits of a plant-based diet. But did you know it was beneficial for the planet, too?
Chopra calls animal farming “the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption, and pollution”.
In Radical Beauty, which he co-authored with Kimberly Snyder, a celebrity nutritionist and a New York Times best-selling author, the two write: “Animal agriculture from producing meat, chicken, eggs, and milk is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean ‘dead zones’ and more. It is shocking that this is not discussed more, but hopefully that will start to change. If we truly care about the environment, the most impactful thing we can do is to be conscious of our food choices and the impact they have on the earth. The choice to give up meat or at least greatly reduce your consumption, will make for a healthier and more beautiful you and a healthier and more beautiful planet.”
Cat and dog lovers, of course, credit their pets with a vast emotional intelligence. However, this is now increasingly accepted in the wider community too, not only among animal rights activists, and many countries have legislated these rights to ensure that animals are not treated as objects.
But, as Peter Wohlleben writes in The Inner Life of Animals, “We must now acknowledge that trees and other plants have feelings and even a capacity to remember. How, pray tell me, are we supposed to feed ourselves in a morally acceptable manner if we are now justified in feeling sorry for plants, as well? Like many species, we cannot photosynthesize to create our own food, so we have to eat living entities to survive. The choices we make are very personal. They might depend on where we live or the culture in which we were brought up.”
Ultimately, though, as each one of us has to decide what we will eat, the least we can do is make an informed choice, he concludes.
Some people are vegetarians because of religious or cultural reasons, or because their parents were. Others are adopting the lifestyle for different reasons. Grant’s Desi Achiever Sonia Faruqi and Natasha Nazerali were both raised in homes where meat was consumed most days, whereas Vandana Jain’s family is vegetarian.
Sonia Faruqi watched undercover videos shot by brave animal rights activists when she was 20 and decided to leave animals off her plate.
“The decision was significant because, until then, meat had formed my primary sustenance,” she writes in her bestselling book Project Animal Farm. “I’d eaten animals every day since I was a child, without ever thinking of them as animals.”
Natasha Nazerali is a professional dancer from Vancouver, Canada. She is also a Team Canada Dance alum representing Canada in The World Championships. She has had the opportunity to work with major companies and artistes and with big names in Bollywood including Shiamak Davar, Saroj Khan, and Preity Zinta. Nazerali’s dancing has been featured in productions and campaigns for companies such as Disney, The Food Network and Lululemon Athletica, to name a few. Her specialty as a Bollywood dancer has led to a successful career across the globe.
Vandana Jain is a vegetarian food blogger. A fusion baker at heart, she loves creating traditional dishes with international flavours and was a season 1 finalist of CBC’s The Great Canadian Baking Show.
Growing up on the Canadian prairies she still had strong culinary influences of her East Indian roots.
They share the why and how of their vegetarian journey here.
Desi News: When and why did you turn vegetarian?
Sonia Faruqi: I turned vegetarian when I was in university and about 20 years old. It was because I started to think about animal welfare. I’d always been compassionate toward cats and I figured that if I was not eating cats, there was no reason for me to be eating cows or other animals.
Natasha Nazerali: I decided to become a vegetarian about four years ago. As a professional dancer my daily routine between shows, rehearsals and training is very physically demanding and because of this I’m really conscious of using the food I eat as fuel to ensure the best performance possible. So four years ago my mom had decided to give vegetarianism a try and I was so inspired by her passion I decided to do it with her and after noticing all of its benefits and doing a lot of research I never turned back!
Vandana Jain: I’ve been vegetarian since I was born. Growing up, I never really looked at animals as food, so it was never something I felt like I was missing out on.
Desi News: What was the reaction from family and friends?
Sonia Faruqi: Reactions varied from positive to surprised to confused. Some people were eager to know more whereas others felt defensive about their dining habits. I find that most people do have a sense of compassion toward animals but have also grown up eating meat. It is easier than ever to change dining habits now, given the huge number of vegetarian recipes available online and the many great cookbooks available.
Natasha Nazerali: Luckily, most of my friends and family have always been supportive and understanding of my decision. Since my mom and I decided to do this together, she was a big help in creating new recipes and finding meat alternatives. After a couple of years, my brother through doing research on the food industry also decided to go vegetarian. So now we have three out of my five immediate family members on board!
Vandana Jain: My family is predominantly vegetarian so that has never been a problem. My friends seemed to be more curious about it, but were never negative in any way. Vegetarianism is so common nowadays that there is hardly any reaction from anyone! Things have come a long way since I was a kid where you would get confused looks at a restaurant when you told them you were vegetarian.
Desi News: Did you notice any negatives, lack of energy, etc.?
Sonia Faruqi: None!
Natasha Nazerali: Currently, in my day to day, I have absolutely no negatives or setbacks from having a vegetarian diet. I will say, however, it is an adjustment when you first make that decision and your body needs time to adjust. So you may notice a lot of changes when you first start. A challenge that I was faced with was that in the beginning I was over-consuming carbs. Because I wasn’t yet as knowledgable on different sources of protein, I was compensating for the lack of protein by eating more carbs. So if you’re going cold turkey like I did I suggest you do some meal prepping and planning so you can make sure you’re still having a balanced diet.
Vandana Jain: None whatsoever. East Indian cuisine is predominately vegetarian and includes a lot of lentils which are a good protein substitute, so it covers the nutrients you need.
Desi News: And the positives?
Sonia Faruqi: I noticed an increase in energy.
Natasha Nazerali: I have noticed so many positives from the inside out! I have tons of energy, my skin is always clear, and I’ve even lost weight since switching to a plant-based diet. I could go on and on!
Vandana Jain: Since I’ve been vegetarian my whole life, it’s hard to measure the positive effects, but I feel healthy, and am usually quite energetic. My husband has been vegetarian for the last nine years and he did say that he felt a boost of energy when he initially changed to a vegetarian diet.
Desi News: How hard is it to be vegetarian? Not just while eating out, but in sourcing ingredients?
Sonia Faruqi: I find that it is very easy to be vegetarian. Especially these days, more and more restaurants are offering excellent vegetarian options on their menus and we are seeing an increase in vegetarian restaurants, some of which are doing so well that they have multiple locations. I have noticed an increase in vegetarian foods when I travel outside North America as well, for instance to Europe.
Natasha Nazerali: This is a question I get asked a lot. Almost everyone I’ve talked to who isn’t a vegetarian, their immediate reaction is: “Oh I could never do that! How do you do it?!”. I always laugh and have the same response because it’s just so simple: “I just don't eat it”. I personally don’t think making a conscious decision to not put something in our mouths and eat it is all that difficult! Once you make the decision I assure you it won’t feel hard at all! I have always been and still am a big foodie so going vegetarian just made me even more creative. Nowadays, being a vegetarian is not uncommon so a restaurant or server will be more than happy to give substitutions or make changes for you, some restaurants even have separate vegan/vegetarian menus, and depending on where you live I bet you may even have a plant-based restaurant in your city. Once you go vegetarian you’ll find there’s an abundance of options and ingredients to suit your lifestyle.
Vandana Jain: It’s actually not so difficult since vegetarianism has become so mainstream. Almost every meat-based product has a vegetarian or vegan alternative nowadays. I would say as a kid it was pretty difficult to find veg options at restaurants. They would somehow think that being vegetarian meant you only ate salad!
Desi News: How hardcore are you? Do you read labels on cakes and cookies, or even soap (for tallow)?
Sonia Faruqi: I do my best to follow a plant-based diet, and I recommend that everyone do their best, whether it is reducing consumption of animal products or eliminating it.
Natasha Nazerali: I have a sweet tooth so I’m really conscious of those! I love gummy candies and marshmallows, and now I make sure to only buy the ones that are labelled as vegan, that way I know there’s no gelatin in there. So unfortunately, I’ve had to give up my beloved chocolate gummy bears as I have yet to find a vegetarian version of those! I also always read labels in stores or double check in restaurants because a lot of sauces, soups or meals have things like anchovies in them, are cooked in animal fat, or made with animal broth.
Vandana Jain: I don’t go as far as reading every label, but I will certainly ensure any restaurant I go to has vegetarian options. I don’t cook or bake with any meat as well so our home has always been meat-free.
Desi News: Do you use substitutes, like tofu for paneer, etc.?
Sonia Faruqi: Yes, I like substituting tofu for paneer! Smoked or Sriracha tofu tasted particularly good.
Natasha Nazerali: At first I used to eat a lot of tofu and soy-based meat alternatives but as I’ve become more experienced with my diet I don’t eat as much of it. I personally prefer soy-free meat alternatives. Because I love a great burger, I love to do veggie patties! My favourite that I buy are ones that are loaded with things like flaxseed, barley and quinoa because it really gives it a heartier taste.
Vandana Jain: Often I will develop recipes that substitute the meat with a vegetarian alternative. For instance, when I made a tourtiere on the Great Canadian Baking Show, I used chickpeas and cashews for this traditionally meat-based dish.
Desi News: Which are your favourite restaurant for vegetarian dishes?
Sonia Faruqi: There are several good ones. Gurulukshmi, Zen Gardens, Planta, Planta Burger, Hog-town Vegan, Sorrele...
Natasha Nazerali: My favourite restaurant for vegetarian dishes is Meet in Vancouver. They have multiple locations throughout the city. It’s completely plant-based and their food is truly delicious! They’re extremely creative with their recipes which I love. It’s a great spot to take your meat-eater friends to because their menu is so diverse there’s something for everyone.
Vandana Jain: I think Canadians really are excited to try new veg dishes and I’m really in awe of the veg community in Toronto. I presented a cooking demo at the 2018 Toronto Veg Food Fest at Harbourfront Centre, and was really excited to experience the Toronto vegetarian culinary scene!
Desi News: In winter, and in colder climes, people seem to think you need the meat for the protein. How true is that?
Sonia Faruqi: Among traditional cultures like some Native cultures in cold climes, people did need to eat meat (usually fish or marine life) because wild plants were impossible to cultivate in winter. That has changed with the advent of farming. For the last thousands of years, we have been able to grow fruits and vegetables, store them or import them, and, certainly in developed countries, enjoy them year-round. As such, the relationship between cold climates and meat is no longer relevant.
Natasha Nazerali: There are so many other ways to source your protein than just meat, and every other vegetarian on the planet, including myself, is living proof that not everyone needs it! I really encourage everyone to do their due diligence and research the harm that is caused by meat mass production (because its effects will have consequences for all of us) and then make a decision that is the best for their lifestyle.
Vandana Jain: I actually disagree with that. Throughout the world, vegetarianism is now looked at as a lifestyle that is not only equal to a meat based diet, but can actually be healthier. As for protein, items like lentils, nuts, and tofu have more than enough to keep the human body going! It would be hard for a person to live a healthy lifestyle without any fruits or vegetables, but a person can certainly be healthy without meat!
Desi News: Any funny experiences related to being vegetarian?
Sonia Faruqi: Occasionally at a buffet, when I’ve travelled to Asia, I have been given a slight discount for being vegetarian!
Natasha Nazerali: One time at a restaurant I ordered a veggie burger and it was made with a meat alternative patty that tasted so authentic I spat it out immediately! I was so panicked I freaked out and sent it back to the server only to be later informed that it was, in fact, completely vegetarian, it just tasted really meaty!
Vandana Jain: It’s kind of funny how other people interpret being vegetarian. I was at a restaurant one time and I told the waitress I was vegetarian. There was nothing on the menu that was obviously vegetarian so she said she would make something delicious in the kitchen for me. She meant well, but when she came back, she had fish on the plate. When I explained again that I was vegetarian, she exclaimed, “Not even fish?”
• www.soniafaruqi.com or Project Animal Farm’s Amazon page: www. amazon.ca/Project-Animal-Farm-Accidental-Journey/dp/1605987980.
• Log on to vandanabakes.com or follow @vandanabakes on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
THE GROWTH OF THE GREEN BRIGADE
The number of vegetarians in Canada has grown from 900,000 to 2.3 million over the past 15 years – which means the demand for vegetarian meal options at restaurants has increased significantly.
Going vegetarian has recently been widely recognized as a healthier alternative to eating meat for both people and the planet. The new Canadian food guide encourages adopting a plant-based diet, and climate change advocates claim it is the single most effective way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Whether you are a vegetarian or love a vegetarian, everyone’s dining needs and preferences can be catered to with great dishes from the country’s top restaurants. To help diners better navigate where to find great vegetarian dishes, OpenTable has compiled Canada’s Top 50 Restaurants with Vegetarian Options. Spanning eight provinces, the list showcases Canada’s cultural diversity and culinary passion for herbivore dining and include Calcutta Cricket Club (Calgary), Planta (Toronto), East is East (Vancouver) and Lov (Montreal). The complete list is at www.opentable.com/lists/best-vegetarian-friendly-ca.